On Sunday, the conservative leadership contender Jeremy Hunt confirmed on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that he believed the current time limit for abortion should be halved, from 24 weeks to 12 weeks.
This is a position Hunt has stated previously – most recently in 2012, and indeed voted for, in vain, in 2008. And although Hunt told Sky News he wouldn’t seek to cut down the limit if he took office, as he launches his campaign to be our next prime minister, his comments matter nonetheless.
For most of the duration of this government, Hunt has served as health secretary. This means he knows – or has no excuse not to know – why women need abortions after 12 weeks.
The proportion of abortions performed in the second trimester is small, about 10% of all terminations. Most women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy act on it as quickly as they can. The same is true of women needing later abortions. Many women are using hormonal contraception, which though effective has, like every method of birth control, a failure rate. As these methods alter or indeed completely suppress bleeding, women often do not suspect they are pregnant until many weeks have passed. They have been using contraception precisely because they are not in a position to have a baby. Later detection doesn’t change that.
And of course, most problems with the pregnancy are not spotted until well into the second trimester, and many not until the 20-week scan. Diagnosis and prognosis can take some time, and women need time to reflect on the results. Reducing the time limit to 12 weeks would rob these women of the ability to make a decision about what they believe is in the best interest of not just themselves and their families, but the child they will go onto have. Hunt speaks of his conscience – well, he can rest assured that women have those too.
But women needing later abortions – particularly towards the end of the second trimester – are often among the most vulnerable. They will include teenage girls who have hidden their pregnancies or taken time to confide in someone they trust. They will include victims of domestic violence for whom abuse has escalated during their pregnancy, and who know the continuation of that pregnancy will hinder their ability to escape.
And people’s lives change, sometimes beyond recognition, in a very short space of time. Women have to grapple with the most complex of situations – whether to continue a much wanted pregnancy when a job has been lost and the family income decimated; an existing child has fallen ill; or she’s been evicted from her home. We should remember this government has presided over the two-child benefit cap, which means no further payments are available for a third child. This absolutely has an impact on women’s reproductive decision-making. Indeed, presumably that was what it was designed to do.
What is also noteworthy about Hunt is that while he says his conscience tells him to reduce women’s access to abortion, it apparently didn’t guide him towards making changes as health secretary that would have improved women’s access to abortion services as early as possible. Enabling women to use some of the abortion medication needed for early termination at home reduces the number of appointments women need to attend, and means more women can get into services as quickly as possible. Hunt was frequently asked to sanction this – it’s standard practice around the world and endorsed by the World Health Organisation – but refused. His successor Matt Hancock did it almost straight away.
He also did nothing to push forward on recommendations by the government’s own scientific committee to fortify flour with folic acid, the most effective way of reducing the number of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly, most of which end in the heartbreaking decision to end a much-wanted pregnancy.
The good news is Hunt’s views are extreme and they are not shared by his parliamentary colleagues. Parliament in recent years has repeatedly signalled its support for progressive reform, to remove the anachronistic and offensive criminalisation of women and healthcare professionals, and indeed to extend those rights to the women of Northern Ireland. This is the direction of travel, and reflective of public sentiment on abortion, which is pro-choice.
Nevertheless, in a climate in which many of us look on aghast at the rollback of reproductive rights in the US, Hunt’s bald response to a question he must have known was coming raises perhaps some interesting questions as to whether there is a particular cohort of Conservative voters to whom he is seeking to appeal.
Much of the last few days has been spent analysing the rights and wrongs of fellow Tory leadership contender Michael Gove’s admission that he used cocaine. He has been praised for his honesty, but it is clear that for some it raises questions about his suitability for the top job.
Hunt has also been honest. And his cavalier and dismissive approach to the needs of some of the UK’s most vulnerable women and their health needs is also ripe for similar scrutiny.
Clare Murphy is head of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS)